AUGUSTA, Maine — Certain Maine businesses will be able to reopen as of Friday as part of a gradual plan to lift restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, though many are expected to continue into the summer, Gov. Janet Mills announced on Tuesday.
Maine joins a dozen other states that have started to ease social distancing measures in some way, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The first stage of the plan continues the governor’s earlier prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people as well as the mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers returning to Maine.
The plan allows some businesses, such as hair salons and other personal services, to reopen while working with the Department of Economic and Community Development on “practical, reasonable, evidence-informed safety protocols.” It outlines additional restrictions that might be lifted in stages over the summer provided that case counts remain low, though Mills anticipates that restrictions on key Maine industries such as lodging could continue into July or August.
Mills said on Tuesday that the relaxing of restrictions did not indicate the pandemic was over, but encouraged Mainers to think about inventing a “new normal.”
“The hard truth is that things are not normal, and they will likely not be normal anytime soon,” she said.
The Democratic governor’s announcement comes a day after the Portland city council voted to extend the city’s stay at home order through May 18. Cumberland County has been hit hardest by the virus, accounting for 45 percent of total cases in the state as well as nearly half of deaths.
On Tuesday, there were 1,040 confirmed cases of the virus in Maine. Only 404 were active, the lowest figure since April 12. Hospitalizations have been declining. The 33 hospitalized patients on Tuesday were the lowest total since Maine began releasing daily figures on April 10. However, 51 people have died from the virus in Maine, with half of deaths associated with outbreaks in long-term care facilities, which remain a concern for the state.
Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, said the flattening case figures “lay the groundwork” for a phased reopening of the economy from a public health perspective, though he cautioned that distancing is still required and his agency will monitor any spikes.
“Even though we are trending in the right direction right now, there is the possibility that things could go back and we could have another spike,” he said.
Mills barred restaurants from dine-in service in mid-March and shut down all nonessential businesses, such as salons, casinos and gyms, a week later. The stay-at-home order, issued on March 31, allows people to leave home to go to essential jobs or purchase necessities, as well as exercise outside so long as they stay six feet away from others, but bans other travel.
The initial phase of the reopening, which Mills indicated would cover the month of May, opens only a few previously closed services, with hair salons, auto dealerships and drive-in movie theaters and religious services allowed to reopen. But dine-in restaurants, gyms and retail establishments must stay closed until the second phase, tentatively scheduled for June.
Mills’ announcement of the phased plan on Tuesday was accompanied with statements of support from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Medical Association and Maine Hospital Association. Her orders have been the subject of pushback in recent weeks. Hundreds of mostly conservative protesters also convened at the Blaine House last week to voice displeasure with restrictions.
Watch: The new way that Maine is classifying some COVID-19 cases
But evidence of the tens of thousands of businesses that have closed can be found in shopping malls and on main streets across Canada.
Behind the figures and bordered-up businesses is the human toll the closures had on the entrepreneurs who saw their passions, dreams and financial lifeblood disappear.
These are the stories of three entrepreneurs from different industries who faced that arduous reality and agreed to share details about their businesses’ downfall, the emotions they’ve felt and how they’re trying to keep their chin up through the heartbreak.
‘I knew we couldn’t weather that storm’
It only took a few days after the Alberta government forced Scott McDermott to close down his fitness gym that he realized the ultimate fate of his business.
Leading up to the coronavirus lockdown in March, he had already cancelled group workouts and child-minding services as fears grew about the coronavirus pandemic. He and his staff were busy preparing online workouts, meal plans and programs for members.
Two days after Best Body Fitness in Sylvan Lake, a resort town in central Alberta, was told to close its doors, McDermott had his weekly meeting with his bookkeeper.
As they looked over the numbers, it hit him. No matter how successful the online offerings were, there was no financial path to overcoming how deep of a hit COVID-19 was going to have on his gym.
“I just had to stop and go, ‘You know what, this isn’t gonna work.'”
Even if gyms would reopen quickly, there would be restrictions, and he knew some members wouldn’t feel comfortable returning for quite a while, regardless of the health and safety protocols introduced.
“I knew we couldn’t weather that storm,” he said.
“It was crystal clear. There was not a cell in my body that didn’t know that was the right decision.”
That March night he wept at his desk until 2 a.m. After 18 years in business, it was over.
“We put so much into it, and we helped so many lives, and we made such a difference, and it was just gone.”
WATCH | How this fitness gym owner realized his business would have to close:
During a meeting with his accountant, Scott McDermott knew instantly he had to shutdown his fitness gym for good. 3:43
After he informed the staff, customers who had prepaid memberships were invited back to take some of the fitness equipment as a trade.
Now, months later, McDermott is trying to stay positive. Instead of working upwards of 100 hours a week as an entrepreneur, his stress levels are noticeably down.
Part of the reason is because the gym was open 24 hours a day, so he always felt like he was working. In addition, the last five years were difficult financially with a struggling Alberta economy and rising business costs.
We stole from our RRSP, and we took from our savings account, and we borrowed money from our parents because you kept believing it’s going to get better. It’s going to turn the corner. When COVID hit, it’s like, no. That’s it.– Scott McDermott
“We stole from our RRSP, and we took from our savings account, and we borrowed money from our parents because you kept believing it’s going to get better. It’s going to turn the corner. When COVID hit, it’s like, no. That’s it.”
As painful as it was to shutter his business, he’s trying to enjoy this transition in life. He’s active with public speaking, online fitness coaching and writing two books. He’s also promoting a documentary about his recovery from a horrific cycling crash in 2015 during an ultra-endurance race.
He isn’t sure if any of these ventures will flourish enough to pay the bills, but he’s excited to find out.
“It’s like a blank slate,” he said. “I’m just trying to be creative and find a way.”
‘Telling the team was really, really hard’
Unlike McDermott, Brianna Hallet was able to reopen her hair salon after the lockdown began in March. However, as the summer wore on, it became clear SwizzleSticks Salon Spa in Calgary was no longer viable.
Adhering to health restrictions meant operating at less than half capacity with up to seven stylists working at one time, even though there are 16 chairs.
The spa side of her business never did reopen to offer massages, facials and other services.
Meanwhile, she said her landlord wouldn’t budge on providing any relief, and the business struggled to pay the rent that was still owed for the spring months when the shop was closed.
Hallet also didn’t qualify for the federal government’s Canada Emergency Business Account, which provides small businesses with interest-free loans of up to $40,000.
“It just seemed like there were too many blockades, and we really didn’t know what the rest of the year would also hold. So even if we got through the next month, what would the next month bring? Would we have to be closed again?”
When the decision was made to permanently close, Hallet had her accountant in the room to help explain the situation to staff and help with the transition.
“Oh my gosh, telling the team was really, really hard. I had the PricewaterhouseCoopers team with me. So that was really nice to have some support on site, but that was an emotional day. Lots of tears.”
WATCH | It wasn’t just one financial obstacle to overcome:
Brianna Hallet was able to re-open SwizzleSticks after the lockdown measures, but it proved to be difficult. 2:25
The end of SwizzleSticks is still a painful reality for Hallet who worked there 14 years and was the owner for the last six years.
“It’s been hard. It’s been a really tough identity thing. I didn’t realize how much of my identity I placed within SwizzleSticks. Even last night, I was journaling some thoughts, and it’s still — it’s the identity,” she said, along with grief and mourning.
Hallet is thankful she kept up her skills behind the chair after becoming the salon owner, as she’s been able to find work at a different salon.
While her first experience as a business owner didn’t end the way she would have liked, it hasn’t diminished her entrepreneurial spirit.
“Absolutely, it’s just a part of me. There are too many opportunities not to do it again.”
‘It feels like a huge loss of yourself’
At the beginning of the year, business was actually pretty good at Enzo Energy Services. The oilpatch has had many struggles since the severe price crash began in 2014, but in the early months of 2020, Casey Johnson’s shop in Red Deer, Alta., was pretty active, and crews were busy.
The trucking company hauled chemicals and other fluids for the oil and gas industry.
Still, he clearly remembers March 9. Saudi Arabia and Russia had begun flooding the market with oil as part of a price war and — coupled with growing coronavirus fears beginning to hurt demand for fuel — sent crude prices spiralling to their lowest levels in several years.
Enzo qualified for multiple government aid programs, but it didn’t make an impact.
“For the size of company we were, it was like firing a paintball gun at a tank. It just wasn’t enough,” he said. “The core issue was such a drop in demand for our services.”
In August, the business shutdown, and two auction companies were called to sell off everything from large trucks to office desks and chairs. Johnson always thought his business would eventually be sold or merged with a larger company.
“It was excruciating,” he said. “It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
At its height, the firm had 25 employees.
“To tell them and their families that their paycheque will not be coming from the business any longer was really hard.”
WATCH | The tough transition after closing your business:
After shuttering his business, Casey Johnson was fortunate to get a new job and in a way, create a new identity for himself 1:12
Johnson himself has been able to find work at an environmental company, which he described as a relief to keep him busy while this part of his life winds down. There’s still more work ahead to be done with creditors, and finding a new tenant for the building won’t be easy.
Still, he’s optimistic about the future. When he does reflect on the business, he tries to focus on the many high points of the 10-year journey.
“When a business closes down, it feels like a huge loss of yourself,” he said. “[But] we’re more than the job we do or the business that we own. And there’s more value to life than the business, even though when you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to make that distinction.”
As small businesses across Nova Scotia change to accommodate the requirements of a pandemic-era economy, the programs services that support them have also had to adapt their methods.
At the Centre for Women in Business, their Greater Heights of Growth program facilitated by Laurie Sinclair — which was originally aimed at helping to grow women-owned Atlantic Canadian businesses with at least one million dollars in annual revenue — quickly readapted into a recovery program to help these local businesses remain operational while navigating a tumultuous economy.
“We pivoted to become a recovery program to help the participants build a Covid-responsive business model, taking all the resources that the business currently has — people, money, brand, customer groups — and being able to use all of those resources to generate a new revenue stream,” explains Sinclair. “We’ve done a lot of work identifying the resource, their value and how to use them differently.”
Patty Howard is one of the business owners benefiting from the support of the recovery program. When the lockdown was enforced and group gatherings were restricted, the core income generator of her 13-year-old company, Kitchen Door Catering, was forced to a halt.
So she joined 17 other women business owners to take part in the recovery program — meeting weekly to share their collective wisdom, learn from a variety of speakers and engage in Sinclair’s lessons on how to pivot and survive.
For Howard and many other business owners, that meant taking things online. She quickly built a website where customers could preorder a selection of fresh and frozen foods to take home, but anticipating a possible two-to-five year restriction on large events — and having just recently moved into a new 11,000 sq. ft. facility — she still needed to find an additional source of income.
“We were approached by a P.E.I-based food company and they asked us if we would be interested in partnering with them to bring Yo-Yo cookies to Atlantic Canada, so we became federally inspected and are now in manufacturing,” says Howard.
At the beginning of the pandemic, she was forced to lay off 24 of 27 staff members, which she says was one of the hardest things she has ever had to do. But with this new revenue stream up and running and her entrepreneurial mindset kicked into full gear, Howard began to look for even more opportunities.
“We wanted to include our ‘foodies friends’ — local businesses without an outlet to sell, especially with farmers markets being non-operational.”
So Howard partnered with some local market favourites, hired a developer and expanded their website to provide a sales platform to these struggling small businesses. She also began to offer virtual cooking classes — and this injection of ingenuity allowed her to re-hire 14 of her former staff members. She’s optimistic that, post-COVID, her company will be leaner, meaner and more profitable.
Back at the Centre for Women in Business, Sinclair says this digitization of businesses has proven to be “incredibly cost-effective” across industries and will be “the way of the future.” She points out that Harvard University says businesses have essentially accelerated technology and digital deliveries more in the previous six months than what would have happened over the next decade had a global pandemic not occurred.
“It has increased the scope for our small economies in Atlantic Canada,” says Sinclair. “We can access other markets, or even speakers if we’re offering a learning experience. There are some great things that come out of this that have accelerated us significantly.”
She says one of the biggest challenges business owners have faced has been uncertainty and how to make decisions going forward. Thanks to having built the capacity and resources to help owners like Howard make decisions on whether to go left or right, the program has received outstanding reviews from participants.
“This is a four-year, federally funded program that the CWB will continue to offer in different cohorts as we move through Covid over the next few years,” says Sinclair. “We are very, very dedicated to helping females start, grow and advance their businesses to create their own security and independence.”
“If you help a woman, you help a family, you help a child, you help a community.”
The Centre for Women in Business is dedicated to helping women across the province succeed as entrepreneurs through exposure, connection and learning. To learn more or apply for membership, visit centreforwomeninbusiness.ca.
Air Transat aircraft are seen on the tarmac at Montreal-Trudeau International Airport in Montreal, on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
More than half the current workforce of Air Transat flight attendants were notified last week that they will be temporarily laid off, says the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
In addition to furloughing 128 Air Transat cabin crew, the airline told workers its Vancouver base will be closed as a stopgap measure.
CUPE says last week’s layoffs leave only 117 flight attendants working for the month of November, down from 245 in October, 355 in August and 2,000 before the COVID-19 pandemic.
While no flight attendants have been permanently let go, the company is processing “a number of temporary layoffs,” Christophe Hennebelle, Transat AT’s vice-president of human resources and corporate affairs, said on Monday.
Hennebelle says the company cannot confirm total numbers before everyone has been informed, but that 128 flight attendants were told of the change last week.
In total, the airline said it now has about 1,700 active employees, down from 5,100 before the pandemic.
The airline attributed the decision to a lack of improving prospects for the industry amid Canada’s border closures and a dearth of support programs for airlines.
Transat is not the only company struggling. Air Canada and WestJet airlines combined have laid off or furloughed more than 30,000 employees since March as ridership has plummeted.
For Transat, the latest wave of temporary layoffs comes after all flight attendants were furloughed between April 1 and July 23, dropping the overall head count across the company to a low of 800 workers in May. Some employees have been receiving government wage subsidies while out of the active workforce, and some have been recalled only to be furloughed again.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been adjusting our staff levels to our forecasted capacity, sometimes calling employees back to work and sometimes unfortunately putting them on temporary layoff,” said Hennebelle.
The union says aviation workers will be holding a protest at Parliament at noon on Tuesday, demanding government support, including rapid COVID-19 screening at Canadian airports.
‘All of our information indicates that Air Transat’s resumption of activities in the summer and fall of 2020 was totally safe for passengers and staff. A rapid screening system that provides pre-boarding results would be a crucial addition for reviving the airline industry,” says Julie Roberts, the president of CUPE’s Air Transat component, in a statement.
“What we need is an efficient federal screening program.”